Terms used in connection with racism and racial discrimination
When discussing topics such as racism and racial discrimination, agreeing on the terminology presents an immediate challenge as the language used in the debate can have political and legal consequences.
In 2014, the Service for Combating Racism (SCRA) joined forces with experts from the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) to produce an internal study on the key terms used when talking about racism in the national and international context: The language of racism (PDF, 801 kB, 02.03.2017, DE / FR)
The study approaches the topic from a legal perspective, exploring the ideological, political, academic and legal discourse at length. However, it can also be referred to on an ad hoc basis for information on particular terms. The following text provides a very brief overview of the terminology associated with racism and discrimination; readers looking for more detailed explanations can consult the full study.
It should generally be noted that most cases of racial discrimination in Switzerland are not ideologically motivated. Instead, they tend to be based on ignorance, vague fears, aggression, prejudice and a lack of empathy. But regardless of whether or not racist acts have any basis in ideology, efforts to eradicate racism must first and foremost recognise that racial discrimination exists – at the structural, institutional and individual level. The crucial point is to recognise the harm suffered by victims of discrimination.
However, prevention and awareness-raising does not mean pointing the finger at ‘racists’, thereby creating new scapegoats. Rather, it means creating the right conditions in everyday life to stop racial discrimination from happening. And above all, it is about developing the ability to recognise discrimination and taking continuous action to combat it.
Racism describes an ideology that divides people into supposedly natural groups on the basis of their ethnic origin, nationality or religion (so-called ‘races’) and arranges these groups hierarchically. People are thus not treated as individuals, but are viewed as members of pseudo-natural groupings which are assigned shared characteristics that are considered immutable.
As a social construct, a ‘race’ is not only defined by its outward appearance, but also by supposed differences in culture, religion or ancestral heritage. It is used, for example, to justify existing socio-economic or educational inequalities by
attributing them to ‘natural’ biological differences based on a person’s ethnic, cultural or religious affiliation. In contrast to the English-speaking world, in Continental Europe the term ‘race’ itself is held to have racist connotations and is therefore usually placed in quotation marks. However, as the term is enshrined in international treaties it is also used in Art. 8 of the Federal Constitution and Art. 261bis of the Swiss Criminal Code to describe one of the grounds on which no person may be discriminated against.
Racial discrimination describes any act or practice by which people are unfairly disadvantaged, humiliated, threatened or their life or health is endangered on grounds of their physical appearance, ethnic origin, cultural characteristics and/or religious affiliation. Unlike racism, racial discrimination is not necessarily underpinned by ideology. Although sometimes conscious, it is frequently unintentional (taking the form of indirect or structural discrimination, for example).
The Cambridge Dictionary defines attitude as “a feeling or opinion about something or someone, or a way of behaving that is caused by this.” This broad definition also covers positive, negative and stereotypical opinions in particular. Personal attitudes voiced in private are protected by the right to freedom of expression and are not subject to legal action. Racist attitudes do not necessarily lead to racist acts and are not necessarily underpinned by ideology. However, they can contribute to a climate in which there is a tendency to tolerate or approve of racist statements and discriminatory acts, even though the majority of the population would never behave in such a manner themselves.
Direct discrimination occurs when someone is treated less favourably than another person in a comparable situation on grounds that are unlawful. Direct discrimination should be distinguished from “unequal treatment” based on criteria or grounds that are permitted.